English: Apprentice. Man and boy making shoes.

It’s a working surname name with a preppy vibe.

Thanks to Vanessa for suggesting Prentice as our Baby Name of the Day.

I had a feeling that I had heard this one on a person before.  It’s actually more common than you might guess.   There’s doo wop singer Prentice Moreland, plus a few athletes and politicians.

But the place that I’d probably heard Prentice was on the Rockefeller family tree.  John D. Rockefeller co-founded Standard Oil and amassed a personal fortune of staggering wealth.  His descendants have been giving it away to good causes ever since.  Daughter Alta married Ezra Prentice, an attorney.  Their son, John Rockefeller Prentice, had a daughter named Abra Prentice, who is known for her considerable generosity to the city of Chicago’s hospitals.

Or maybe it was Prentice Hall, publishers of educational textbooks since 1913.  The company was founded by Charles Gerstenberg and Richard Ettinger.  Maybe because Gerstenberg Ettinger made for a clumsy company name, the founders opted to use their mothers’ maiden names instead.

So Prentice is undeniably a surname, and you might be able to guess the origins.  The term apprentice refers to someone learning a trade.  It comes out of the Middle Ages, when a master craftsman would take on young students, typically in their teens.  The apprentices could usually expect to become masters eventually.  Apprentice comes from the French apprendre – to learn – and shares roots with the English word apprehend – to grasp or to seize, either intellectually, or in the law enforcement sense.

Prentice was used as the noun and verb in English, so it is no surprise that the occupational term became a surname.

Like many a surname, it has had a long, sparing history of use – a few dozen in this year, a handful in that year.  A few girls have been called Prentice, but this one leans blue.  14 boys were given the name in 2012.

Alternate spelling Prentiss has never been common in the first spot, but you’ll find it in use.

Notable bearers of both spellings include:

  • Actresses Ann and Paula Prentiss, both active in the 1960s and 70s.  Paula gave her maiden name to a daughter, with fellow actor Richard Benjamin.
  • Sergeant Prentiss was the son of a shipowner and Congressman from Mississippi in the 1830s.  He was considered a masterful orator, but died rather young, at just 41.  A county in his home state bears his name.
  • Kinetic sculptor Tim Prentice creates sculptures meant to move.
  • It’s a place name, presumably borrowed from various bearers of the surname.  The Prentice Plateau in the Antarctic was named after a researcher with the United States Antarctic Program.
  • Prentice’s rule has to do with prisms.  I’m assuming it was named after an ophthalmologist or someone notable in the world of optics, but I can’t pin down exactly who that rule-making scientist was.

As a given name, Prentice feels preppier and more buttoned-down than mainstream picks like Carter and Blake.  But he’s not as elaborate as Percival or Lancelot.  He seems like a smart, thoughtful choice for a pint-sized scholar.

File Prentice in the wearable rarities category – a surname name that has sometimes appeared in the first spot, and could wear well in 2014.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Like you, I had a feeling that I had heard this one before and I realized the show Criminal Minds has a character named (Emily) Prentiss. I only watch the show intermittently, but apparently the name stuck with me. Prentice defiantly has a preppy (and male) vibe, but I could see someone using Prentiss as modern-update of Priscilla.

  2. Oh my gosh! I love the name Abra! John Steinbeck used it for a character in “East of Eden” and Stephen King recently used it for the little girl in “Doctor Sleep”. I love seeing it used on a real person! Abra Prentice. What a great name!

  3. I like Prentice, although if I wanted a preppy surname-name, I would be more likely to use Preston as it’s in my family tree. Prentice Gautt was the first African-American football player at the University of Oklahoma. He would be an admirable namesake. He played in the NFL and earned his PhD while coaching at University of Missouri.